Speed Reads

Rest in Peace

Stax Records founder Jim Stewart, who helped produce the 'Memphis sound,' is dead at 92

"It's one of the strange twists of history that the greatest, funkiest soul label in the world, one of the most powerful outlets for Black expression, was started by a white hillbilly fiddler named Jim Stewart," Bob Mehr writes at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. Stewart, the founder of Stax Records, died Monday surrounded by family, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music said Tuesday. He was 92.

Stewart cofounded Satellite Records in 1957 with his sister, Estelle Axton, recording country and pop records on their Ampex tape recorder with little commercial success. In 1961, they changed the label's name to Stax, combining the first two letters of their last names.

After Stewart and Axton moved the recording studio to South Memphis' increasingly Black "Soulsville" neighborhood in 1959, Stax Records became a place "where, during an era of racial strife, white musicians and producers worked alongside Black singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists to create the 'Memphis sound,'" The Associated Press reports.

Rufus Thomas and his daughter, Carla, scored Stax its first regional hit with 1960's "'Cause I Love You." Carla Thomas' follow-up "Gee Whiz" put Stax on the national map and led to a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. During the 1960s, Stax recorded a string of hits including Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay," Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and "Hold On I'm Comin,'" Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood," and "Green Onion" by house band Booker T. and the M.G.s. 

After Otis Redding died in a plane crash in 1967 and Atlantic Records took possession of Stax's song catalog in a 1968 contract dispute, Stewart, Axton, and Al Bell — a Black partner Stewart brought on in 1965 — sold the company to Gulf & Western. Stewart and Bell bought it back in 1970 and Bell bought out Stewart in 1972. Stax had a second high period with soul hits by Issac Hayes and other artists, but financial troubles led to the label's closure in 1976.

From 1959 to 1975, Stax and affiliated labels released 300 albums and 800 singles, according to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which inducted Stewart in 2002.

Stewart was born in 1930 on a farm in Middleton, Tennessee, and moved to Memphis to attend Memphis State University. He played fiddle in a country band, the Canyon Cowboys, and continued working at a bank until 1965. He lost most of his Stax fortune in its collapse. Stewart is survived by three children and two grandchildren.